Japan is looking to resume accepting some foreign tourists in June at the earliest, a government source said Friday, likely reversing a ban on their entry introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the highly anticipated move that would boost the country's struggling tourism industry, the government may accept a limited number of group tours on a trial basis by the end of May to see the impact on the COVID-19 situation, the source added.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during his visit to London on Thursday that Japan will review its COVID-19 measures "in stages" after consulting with public health experts, and bring them on par with other Group of Seven nations.
The government currently allows up to 10,000 people a day to enter Japan, but visitors are limited to businesspeople, technical interns and students.
It plans to raise the cap as well as the number of foreign tourists in stages in the coming months.
During the trial phase, small groups of foreigners would visit sightseeing spots based on fixed itineraries in order for the government to see whether it can grasp their movements and how to respond if a COVID-19 case is detected, according to the source.
The government will also consider requiring that participants have already had booster vaccine shots before the tours.
Japan strengthened its border controls in February 2020 as the virus spread around the world. The government later began admitting a limited number of vaccinated foreign visitors with business purposes.
But in late November the country imposed, in effect, an entry ban on nonresident foreign nationals to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The blanket ban, however, drew criticism at home and abroad that the measure was too strict.
The government began easing the ban in March, gradually increasing the number of people allowed in, as well as expanding the categories to businesspeople, technical interns and students.
Prior to the pandemic, the number of foreign visitors in Japan had been expanding. The figure reached almost 32 million in 2019, as the government was boosting tourism as a driver of economic growth with a goal of 40 million in 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics were initially scheduled to be held, although they were postponed to 2021 amid the pandemic.
However, amid COVID-19 travel restrictions, the number of foreign visitors dropped to 245,900 in 2021, the lowest since 1964 when comparable data became available, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. Compared with the pre-pandemic year of 2019, the figure plunged 99.2 percent.
As the government looks to resume letting foreign tourists in, businesses that depend on them are finally seeing a ray of hope in the likely revival in inbound tourism.
Yoko Kikuchi manages an umbrella store on the Nakamise shopping street running to Senso-ji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district, a popular spot, pre-pandemic, for foreign visitors.
The 77-year-old said that while activity was up since anti-COVID restrictions were eased in March, it was "still nothing like before," adding, "I hope that with foreign tourists returning, the street will get its energy back."
Keisuke Ishikawa, a 52-year-old owner of a bamboo crafts store in Arashiyama, a popular tourist area in Kyoto, welcomed the news that Japan is expected to finally reopen to foreign tourists.
"A lot of Japanese come on weekends and holidays, but I used to expect sales from inbound tourists on weekdays. I've waited and waited for this," he said.
But he also aired concern over new variants being brought in from abroad and said that depending on the situation, the government should "be bold and consider suspending new arrivals."
The number of new infection cases across the nation has been about 20,000 to 30,000 per day in May, compared with more than 100,000 in early February when Japan was struggling to stem a new wave of Omicron-driven infections.